David O. Russell’s American Hustle is a rush, a jolt of raw energy, a fast moving, over-the-top blast of a movie. It’s a caper movie, really, about con men getting away with a scam, but it owes a lot of late 70s political corruption movies too, to All the Presidents Men and Serpico and even later Scorsese movies, Casino and Goodfellas. It’s set in the late 70s/early 80s, and rather loosely (and gleefully) deals with Abscam, a famous FBI sting operation that ended the careers of six Congressmen and one US Senator. It’s an actors’ movie if ever there was one, with juicy, rich performances from Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner and Louis CK and Jennifer Lawrence, and an astonishing one from Amy Adams, for which she will, if there’s any justice in Hollywood, win the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
Adams plays Sydney Prosser, a street-smart, dirt poor girl from Albuquerque who shows up in New York City desperate to do essentially anything to make it in the big city. She meets Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), a low-life small businessmen, who runs a few dry cleaning businesses, and pulls off small scams on the side. Bale plays Rosenfeld with a whole lot of belly and not much hair–the movie begins with him elaborately gluing clumps of fake hair on his scalp, and then covering them up with a comb-over. He doesn’t ever seem terribly bright, but he is shrewd, and once he meets Sydney, their cons become ever more elaborate and successful. She affects an inconsistent British accent (a fabulous character touch, BTW, the way the accent comes and goes), and poses as Lady Edith Greenleigh, pulling in customers with a promise of access to the British banking industry–he then fleeces the clients with promises of low-interest loans, which mysteriously then fail to materialize. They’re a team, Sydney/Edith and Irving, in and out of bed. Though he also insists that he can never leave his wife, Rosalyn, for the sake of their child, a boy. Can’t leave her, or doesn’t want to? We ask, because Rosalyn is played by Jennifer Lawrence.
Rosalyn’s a comparatively small part, and not terribly central to the movie’s main plot. But Lawrence is amazing in it, filling out this brassy, ballsy, woman with her usual emotional directness and charisma, only in this case, using it for comedy. Rosalyn’s maybe not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but she’s also never at fault for anything–there’s always a good reason for that house fire or smashed car. There’s a scene late in the movie where Rosalyn and Sydney meet in a lady’s room, Irving’s wife and mistress in the same confined space, two women who despise each other, and clearly would love to rip each other to shreds. And I’m not kidding when I say that Amy Adams gives the performance of a lifetime in this movie. She’s brilliant throughout–playing a sexy, powerful, intelligent, vulnerable survivor–pure toughness, barely hanging on. And in that lady’s room scene, she seems almost pallid, such is Lawrence’s sheer camera presence.
Okay, so the FBI, in the person of Cooper’s Agent DiMaso, finally catches Sydney and Irving, and works out a deal–they’ll help the Feds catch other con artists, in exchange for immunity. And then the investigation takes a sharp turn, as they start investigating a New Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito (Renner), who’s trying to bring gambling to Atlantic City. Through Polito, they begin bribing Congressmen, and they also work to bring down a Miami Mafioso, Victor Tellegio, played by, who else? Robert Di Niro.
And Sydney and Agent DiMaso begin a loveless, steamy-but-sexless affair. And she and Irving begin trying to see if there’s a way they can scam their way out of this mess.
Abscam, in real life, was also about New Jersey politics, but it brought in Philadelphia and Georgetown and DC as well. The movie is hardly historically accurate, and doesn’t claim to be; it begins with the warning ‘some of this actually happened.’ But the movie captures the era perfectly; the open shirts, the gold dangling in chest hairs, the horrible hair and, OMG, the women’s outfits. Amy Adams wears a succession of open-to-the-midriff shirts, bra-less throughout, yet even her barely-concealed nipples are overshadowed by Christian Bale’s spectacular comb-over. And the music is never shy of being completely apropos. I came home from the movie, and went straight to I-tunes to buy the soundtrack.
It’s a brilliant, cynical movie, in which everyone’s seeking an edge, and nobody can quite be trusted, least of all those closest to us. But it’s also somehow old-fashioned. Even these low-life crooks have some sense of honor. These brutal, damaged people are also desperate for love, and they have odd vulnerabilities that are touchingly human. That’s why Amy Adams performance lingers in the mind when the movie is over. She’s so terribly, tragically alone. Not sure who she is, not sure how to deal with love offered so tenuously by either Cooper or Bale’s characters. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and also deeply moving, and it features some of America’s finest actors giving astounding performances. For that alone, it’s worth seeing.